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WHAM! POW! Comics as User Assistance

Erika Noll Webb, Gayathri Balasubramanian, Ultan ỎBroin, and Jayson M. Webb

Journal of Usability Studies, Volume 7, Issue 3, May 2012, pp. 105 - 117

Article Contents


Comics, defined as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (McCloud, 1993, p. 20), are now a popular form of instruction and technical communication—a powerful way of visually communicating structure, relationship, and flow (Hughes, 2009). Comics now communicate a broad range of messages, from smoothing international relations to obtaining temporary resources for a large national or international company (enterprise business) (McCurry, 2008; Odesk.com, 2011). Comics are regarded as an important form of communication, offering a powerful and meaningful way to tell users of information technology about new features, best practices, concepts, and usage procedures (Andriessen, Kliphuis, McKenzie, & Van Winkelen, 2009). Adopting a plain language adaptation of McCloud's 1993 definition, Porter (2010) posited that comics convey their message to readers in a way that allows readers to recognize and relate to comics on a different, more emotional way than other traditional forms of technical communication, such as documentation and help systems. Pratt (2010) firmly positions comics as affective technical communication, part of an emotional user experience designed to engage users more with products and services, as well as to answer their questions. Manga (Japanese comics) guide users on everything from database administration to statistics to physics (Nitta, Takatsu, & Trend-Pro Ltd, 2009; Takahashi, Azuma, & Trend-Pro Ltd, 2009; Takahaski & Trend-Pro Ltd, 2008). Comics have been used to convey legal information and to show how to use the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (http://www.manageengine.com/products/service-desk/itil-whitepaper.html).

Comics as a Teaching Device

Comics are now regularly encountered globally as they are embraced by education systems from elementary schools to Ivy League colleges (Davidson, 2008; EduComics: Using Web Comics in Education, 2010; Gerde, & Foster, 2007). The complexity of their use has advanced from one of a “debased form of word-based literacy” to a complex textual environment that relies on users making meaning of not just words, but also other visual elements, gestural, and spatial aspects (Jacobs, 2007, p. 19). Comics offer the potential for making studies more relevant to students, instructors, and academics in sociology courses (Hall & Lucal, 1999), as well for making studies more engaging, accessible, fun to read (Hall, 2011), and developing inferences and solutions to problems (Kneller, 2009). Comics provide a source of inquiry even into brain injuries (Kamp, Slotty, Sarikaya-Seiwert, Steiger, & Hänggi, 2011), physiology (Zehr, 2011), and copyright law (Duke Law Center for the Study of the Public Domain, 2006). Research into cartoon-based teaching of concepts shows the effectiveness of comics in creating focused discussions and remedying misconceptions by students (Kabapinar, 2005). Importantly, however, success is not standalone, but also stems from the quality of the delivery and interactions around the content.

Comics and the Enterprise Business

Comics are big business; the US comic book market is estimated as earning $680-710 million in 2008 (Kneller, 2009). Comics are also encountered in enterprise business to communicate, discuss, and critique issues in business ethics and social issues in management, popularized by the satirical Dilbert comic strip (http://www.dilbert.com/). Topics include diversity and teamwork, leadership, marketing, internationalization of marketing, technology, and so on (Gerde & Foster, 2007).

Comics are used by enterprises to promote their products and services either directly (as a form of advertising and marketing) or through product placement in a comic strip. Businesses can also use comics to explain how to use a product or how to resolve problems after the purchase of a product (Cheng, 2008). Consumer research shows how visuals convey more detail, analogous to “writing in more detail” (Scott & Vargas, 2007, p. 342).

Within the enterprise, comics are used to instruct employees about internal organization procedures and process, as well being used as assistance for users of technology used by the business.

Comics as Technical Communications

Comics have entered the mainstream as a form of technical communication and are no longer considered a lightweight comedy subject. They can be widely produced as an alternative to the failings of “tech speak” technical communications (Sedaca 2007). Comics have been used to convey new information in the form popularized by Scott McCloud's adaptation for the Google Chrome browser (http://www.google.com/googlebooks/chrome). Further examples of comics being used to communicate concepts in information design range in approaches from The Oatmeal’s irreverent comics (http://theoatmeal.com/comics/shopping_cart 2011) to the more nuanced and measured use by Hardee (2011).


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